Why Moderation and Charity Are Overrated

In Jake Meador’s review of Rod Dreher’s BenOp, he makes this passing observation of the NAPARC landscape:

A desire to preserve unity at the cost of clarity and an unwillingness to take a stance is not a solution and, in fact, will probably cause as many to drift as will a lack of charity and restraint in our rhetoric. Being in the PCA, this is the concern that occupies my mind more as it seems the greater danger in my immediate ecclesial context. I suspect that it is also the greater danger in most Catholic dioceses and many non-denominational evangelical churches.

Even so, a lack of charity and restraint in our rhetoric will lead some who might otherwise be persuadable to dismiss us. That seems the greater danger in the Southern Baptist Convention, if my read of things is accurate. It is also the greater danger in many reformed microdenominations such as the OPC and CREC, I strongly suspect.

For the record, the books that came out recently about the contemporary cultural bankruptcy had no ties to the micro Reformed denominations. They came from an Eastern Orthodox layman (Dreher), a Roman Catholic archbishop (Chaput), and a Roman Catholic layman (Esolen). Those are churches that have labored under the Christ and culture burden, have tried to make society Christian, and are now showing the effects of that weight.

What has the little old OPC produced about the current crisis (a conference on gay marriage that technical glitches prevented from being recorded?)? Nothing. It is still more or less wedded to J. Gresham Machen’s assessment of the Protestant mainstream and is more or less committed to passing on the faith without the assistance of America’s cultural or political institutions. But when a church simply tries to do what a church is called to do (see 25.3 of the Confession of Faith), it is in danger of showing a lack of restraint and charity?

Not to be missed is the kind of transformationalist vision that has become the PCA’s calling card of late. Perhaps the idea of being a church to the big city is charitable and restrained (though to anyone with half a brain it sure looks delusional to think you can teach Woody Allen’s New Yorkers to become Wheaton’s evangelicals). But from the perspective of the Protestant mainline, the PCA looks downright sectarian.

That may be the single recommendation for Rod Dreher’s book — to provoke those who want a seat at the table (or a mouthful of the Big Apple) to consider what it means to be a stranger and alien. I know Jake Meador already knows this. But sometimes his PCA identity gets in the way of his inner Stanley Hauerwas and he never says “boo” about PCA exceptionalism in the era of Tim Keller.

Another Difference between New and Paleo Calvinists

New Calvinists are mean but don’t know it.

Jonathan Merritt was an unlikely person to confirm a point made here before, namely, that when you define orthodoxy you also draw lines that to outsiders will look unloving and mean. (Think undergraduates at Oberlin seeking protection from disquieting perceptions.) For a while New Calvinists and their allies at the Gospel Coalition have portrayed Paleo Calvinists as mean. Now with Merritt what goes around comes around.

He observes that New Calvinists are full of criticism (and instructions on how to do it):

The website’s archives read like a how-to handbook for criticizing. TGC managing editor Matt Smethhurst tackles how to criticize fellow Christians. Blogger Jared Wilson lays out when you should criticize your pastor. Popular blogger Justin Taylor explains how to criticize your non-Christian friends and how to criticize another person’s theology and how to criticize the evangelical movement at-large.

Their rebukes are not always theoretical. TGC bloggers regularly express sharp disapproval of theologians, pastors, authors, and politicians using strong language. When writer Thabiti Anyabwile wanted to criticize homosexuality, for example, he encouraged readers to recover their “gag reflex” and focus on the “yuck factor.” Setting aside the many–and I mean many–problems with this way of thinking, Anyabwile’s approach is not exactly a silver-plated conversation starter in a non-Christian culture. You can’t transform a culture while you’re browbeating, rebuking, name-calling and gagging. That’s not a recipe for cultural engagement, but rather cultural enragement.

Then there is New Calvinists’ refusal to entertain criticisms themselves:

Most people who have been blocked by TGC say they were punished for questioning the coalition’s disastrous defense of Sovereign Grace Ministries, a prominent Calvinist ministry that was embroiled in a sexual abuse scandal. TGC personalities connected to SGM continued to express support and friendship for those involved with the scandal even as it became clear that Sovereign Grace leaders were complicit. Many who questioned TGC’s stance were blocked. Some who merely used Twitter handles such as #istandwithsurvivors were similarly punished by TGC.

TGC’s blocking spree has swept in countless pastors, seminary professors, bloggers, and others. One person told me they were blocked for challenging their comments about transgender people, while another said they were punished for questioning their stance on “biblical masculinity.” Several told me they were blocked for retweeting someone else’s critique, while others — like Northern Seminary professor Geoff Holsclaw — said they had no idea why TGC blocked them. . . .

A pattern of offering criticism while not being able to receive it, according to Dr. Leon Seltzer of Psychology Today, is a characteristic trait of narcissism. As Seltzer writes, “Deep down, clinging desperately not simply to a positive but grandiose sense of self, [narcissists are] compelled at all costs to block out any negative feedback about themselves.”

Finally, Merritt points out the problem of belonging to a club instead of a church:

TGC has established a system where in order to be a part of the network, one has to believe a set of doctrines that are more specific than some denominations. Basically, you have to be a conservative Calvinist protestant who holds particular views about gender roles, reads the Bible in a certain way, understands human sexuality like they do, etc. If you don’t agree to these positions, you’re out. And those who add their church to the directory of TGC-approved congregations are encouraged to police others. The site asks members to “report a church that doesn’t align with TGC’s Foundation Documents.”

The word “coalition” is defined as “a combination or alliance, especially a temporary one between persons, factions, states, etc.” But the structure of TGC allows for almost no diversity among its members–certainly none that would be noticeable to anyone who is not a Christian insider. So, technically-speaking, The Gospel Coalition is not a coalition at all; they are a club.

If the New Calvinists were more ecclesial and less parachurchian, they might not lose their critical side. And contrary to Merritt who thinks engaging culture is a positive, if New Calvinists were churchly they wouldn’t worry about the culture so much. Belonging to a church and working within its structures would not make them less critical, though Robert’s Rules supplies a structure for critique that takes away some of criticism’s sting. The best thing that might happen to New Calvinists if they looked to the church instead of the club, they would not be so doctrinaire about so many peripheral matters. The visible church has a way of focusing your outlook (not sure what happened to Pope Francis).

How Inorganic

Why do pseudo-Calvinists complain so much about mean Calvinists? If you thought much about total depravity in your own life, you might not be in a nice frame of mind during waking hours. Or if you pondered most of the Bible, saw what happens to law breakers or how Christ interacts with the self-righteous, you might not be inclined to don a yellow-happy-face pin. Or if you considered the majesty and sovereignty of God and tried to imagine how a holy and righteous God puts up with a world that — let’s say — falls short of his standards, your jaws might be tight a lot of the time. So why does Daniel Montgomery continue the meme of the Gospel Allies that TGC Calvinism is nice and other kinds aren’t? Do these folks actually think that Mr. Rogers is more interesting than Christopher Hitchens? Then why make avoidance of offense the hallmark of your brand?

The main point for considering Montgomery’s post, though, is an odd metaphor that he invokes from TKNY about theological vision (w-w anyone?):

Without the clarity of a comprehensive theological vision, we succumb to emphatic theology with no connection between all the different fragments of theology and the arenas of our lives. As Tim Keller argues, if theological confession is our hardware and methodological strategy our software, we desperately need the theological “middleware” of vision to bring our confession to life and inform our methodology. This is an extension of Richard Lints’s siren call in The Fabric of Theology. Reflecting on the necessity of having a coherent theological vision, Lints writes:

The Christian gospel calls us not only to a well-formed theistic matrix but also to make conscious connections between that matrix and the other matrices of our lives. What I believe about God ought to influence how I view my own identity, my vocation, my family, my leisure pursuits, and so on. It is this matrix of matrices that I have been calling the theological vision. It is composed more narrowly of the theistic matrix (what I will be calling a theological framework) and more broadly of the interconnections between the theistic matrix and all other matrices in one’s noetic structures. Theology involves not just the study of God (theistic matrix) but also the influence of that study on the rest of one’s life (theological vision). It is possible to distinguish these two levels, but they are never separable in practice.

Huh?

One way to spot a true Kuyperian from a poser is to watch for metaphors. The more organic, the more Kuyperian since Abraham Kuyper himself everywhere employed images from the natural world — roots, branches, life-giving sources, the folk with ties to the fatherland. But Keller and Lovelace employ mechanical and even mathematical metaphors to try to explain the way that theology functions in Christian devotion.

I can’t think of a better way to remove a church’s confession from officers’ and church members’ consciousness than by likening it to computer hardware. If anything, ecclesiology is the hardware on which the software of confessions runs so that users may worship and serve God. But this is a poor analogy. I prefer the stool (preferably handmade) to the computer. Confessional Presbyterianism is like a three-legged stool with polity, confession, and liturgy each constituting a leg. Remove one and confessional Presbyterianism falls and confessional Presbyterians land on their arses.

But TKNY’s computing metaphor may explain the dynamics of TGC. When your fellowship is digital and web-based, you may wind up treating doctrine like computer hardware — invisible and beyond your competency. Keller may explain more than he knows.

By the way, Montgomery quotes Piper on the appeal of Calvinism to a certain type of person:

There is an attractiveness about [the doctrines of grace] to some people, in large matter, because of their intellectual rigor. They are powerfully coherent doctrines, and certain kinds of minds are drawn to that. And those kinds of minds tend to be argumentative. So the intellectual appeal of the system of Calvinism draws a certain kind of intellectual person, and that type of person doesn’t tend to be the most warm, fuzzy, and tender. Therefore this type of person has a greater danger of being hostile, gruff, abrupt, insensitive, or intellectualistic. I’ll just confess that. It’s a sad and terrible thing that that’s the case. Some of this type aren’t even Christians, I think. You can embrace a system of theology and not even be born again.

Obviously, Piper has never encountered Jason and the Callers.

The Problem of Sappy Evangelicals

One of the arresting aspects of marriage is that if a husband tells his wife she should watch her weight the wife gets angry. And then if hubbie tells wifey that she is angry — as if that’s a bad thing — for some reason the wife does not calm down but gets angrier. The reason for such humdrum recounting of marital relations is yet another post over at the Gospel Coalition about angry Calvinists. Justin Taylor, with lots of help from John Piper, speculates on the traits that cause Calvinists to be an angry lot (and not to be missed, make the young Calvinists at TGC look so incredibly nice).

According to Taylor:

Angry Calvinists are not like unicorns, dreamed up in some fantasy. They really do exist. And the stereotype exists for a reason. I remember (with shame) answering a question during college from a girl who was crying about the doctrine of election and what it might mean for a relative and my response was to ask everyone in the room turn to Romans 9. Right text, but it was the wrong time.

This is an odd observation because Taylor never identifies a single angry Calvinist. He has engaged in a form of stereotype that would be politically incorrect if applied on the lines of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. You’d think that the nice Calvinists at TGC would be more sensitive about theological profiling.

You’d also think that if Taylor believes Calvinists are prone to anger then a pastoral response might be to avoid winding them up — as in not mentioning the problem. Does he refer to alcoholic Christians as those “dipsomaniac Protestants”? Does he make a habit of calling attention to questionable character traits in his readers?

As for the diagnosis, he cites Piper who writes (in part):

So the intellectual appeal of the system of Calvinism draws a certain kind of intellectual person, and that type of person doesn’t tend to be the most warm, fuzzy, and tender. Therefore this type of person has a greater danger of being hostile, gruff, abrupt, insensitive, or intellectualistic.

Piper doesn’t seem to consider the type of person that can’t handle people who are insensitive, or the kind that has to publicly broadcast that a certain slice of Christians are insensitive. Profiling works both ways. Hence sappy evangelicals.

Which is why it is possible that the problem afflicting the evangelicals at the Gospel Coalition is one of sentimentality. That is, they value feelings more than doctrine. This is what Ken Myers called orthopathy instead of orthodoxy. This does not mean that the folks at TGC ignore doctrine. Obviously, they promote it. But they never let it function in a way that might make leaders, readers, or bloggers uncomfortable — that is, doctrine will never be offensive, especially to the co-allies. But they seem to have no problem patrolling the Christian world for incorrect emotions.

This would apparently explain why the bloggers at TGC have yet to mention the two six hundred pound gorillas in the TGC parlor — C. J. Mahaney and Mark Driscoll. The former has at the very least created a ruckus about the kind of pastoral leadership within SGM circles, which would seem to undermine TGC’s commitment to promoting gospel-centered churches. And then there is Dricoll’s clairvoyance which in sixteenth-century Geneva would have gotten him drowned. I understand that these situations are delicate and that friends want to stand by friends. But to call Calvinists — yet again — angry when TGC has its own image problems is well nigh remarkable unless, that is, you remember the importance of feelings, affections, passions, and hedonism. A co-ally may not be able to spot Mahaney’s or Driscoll’s errors but can FEEL their pain.

Maybe the problem is one of discipline. When I was a boy and got in trouble my dad would take out the belt and give me a wallop or two across my behind. I thought he was angry. I also thought he was mean. Never mind that he always shed a few tears while executing his duties. His tears could not compare to mine since I was the one who really felt pain and he was the one inflicting it.

Could it be that Calvinists look mean to Gospel Co-Allies in the same way that disciplining dads do to wayward children? Maybe. But if you want direction and counsel that prevents you from wandering off the right path, would you rather go to a Presbyterian pastor or leave a message with one of the Gospel Coalition’s celebrities and wait for one of his assistants to respond?

Postscript: Ross Douthat has a post about the reign of niceness among Harvard University undergraduates. He writes: “The pursuite of niceness and the worship of success can complement one another as easily as they can contradict. But the kind of culture that’s created when they combine — friendly and deferential on the surface, boiling with resume-driven competitiveness underneath — isn’t one that a great university should aspire to cultivate.” I wonder if a similar combination could be responsible for the culture of niceness over at TGC.